Otherworld North East

Do you know the risk? Investigating derelict buildings

Would you like breathing this in?This is an updating rehash of one of our old articles, but its been notable on social media that new ghost hunter/paranormal investigation groups are popping up across the country due to COVID-19 restrictions… and is seems that a small group of people heading out on a Saturday night to investigate ghosts at their local derelict ruins seems to be a rising pastime.

This article isn’t about being a killjoy, or ‘having a go’. Its not even about the plethora of ghost groups who think its perfectly acceptable to break-and-enter derelict buildings to ply their ‘trade’. Its about the very real risk to life and limb. Not by alleged ghosts or cryptids but by debris, slicing and dicing, sharps and spores.

Health and safety be the main concern

The thing a lot of groups seem to forget about is that no matter how spooky or pretty a derelict building is, its very likely derelict for a reason. Getting permission to enter the building not only prevents a group potentially seeing the blue flashing lights coming over the hill, but also gives the group valuable information, primarily on the safety aspects. Most owners of derelict buildings who allow teams into their property will need it to be done with insurance, covered by a risk assessment and a waiver of liability.

A risk assessment will highlight any issues the building has. Is there broken glass on the floor? Are the floorboards safe to walk on upstairs? Is the gas turned off? Are parts of the roof about to collapse? The issues with derelict buildings can take up most of a long list, and if the investigators don’t know the answers to any of them, they’re putting themselves, their team-mates and their guests at risk.

Without a risk assessment, most Paranormal Investigator insurance will be invalid. Something to think about, even at that level. Next thing you’ll be asked if there is an incident is who put the risk assessment together? Were they qualified or experienced enough to do so adequately? Was an emergency procedure in place? A fire procedure? Who are the first aiders on site? Something to also be aware of is that some insurance providers won’t cover fieldwork in derelict buildings. Best to check you’re covered. Insurance also won’t cover you if you’ve just broken in somewhere without permission. Obviously.

For guests going on paid ghost hunts, these things are something to be aware of. If your hosts can’t provide a copy of a thorough risk assessment and proof of permission by the landowner/property owner, then just don’t risk it. 

Here’s a very basic list to think about. It by no means covers everything – each building is different.

Live services: In some cases even though a building is derelict, services may not have been shut off completely meaning that a shift in the fabric of the structure (such as an investigator leaning on a wall that gives way) can release toxic substances into the atmosphere. Gas is the obvious thought here, but also be aware that electricity can arc especially with degraded cabling. As well as the obvious immediate risk to life, gas and electricity can cause long term issues such as fires and carbon monoxide.

Coal gas: In areas where coal lies close to the surface (ie most of the North East of England), coal gas can build in disused tunnels and cellars. Long term exposure can be fatal, and short term symptoms include headaches, feelings of weakness, nausea, difficulty breathing, blurred vision, mental confusion and even loss of consciousness. 

Slips, trips, falls and overheadsDerelict buildings often have rough/uneven floors, or even flooring that in some cases is missing providing a tremendous risk of falling to injury or worse below. Walls may crumble to the touch, and ceilings may collapse, involving heavy and piercing materials. In the case of some buildings, such as shells of castles, falling masonry is also a major risk. Some buildings also have areas that are scaffolded: climbing on the scaffolding could produce major injuries in the form of slips and falls. Rough uneven walls, often with protruding nails or rusted metal features can also produce major health risks, with as well as providing cut and puncture risks also carry the risk of tetanus, 11% of cases in recent years which have proven fatal.

Human induced detritus/sharps: Detritus may be present inside the building in the form of waste (broken glass, sheared metal etc) or even narcotic paraphernalia such as needles. If any of these items are noted, they should be left well alone and the building departed immediately. The building owner/council should then be informed.

Contamination: Good handwashing facilities are needed if you’re going to investigate a derelict building. Simple soil in, around and under buildings can be anything but clean. Industrial societies in the past allowed land to become contaminated in various ways over many years, and simple soil/dirt can also contain animal faeces as well as fungal or microbial elements. Every derelict building will have rats: rat faeces and urine can be extremely dangerous causing Weils’ Disease (leptospirosis), which can result in renal failure, liver and kidney damage as well as heart issues. Desgraded faeces and dried urine could be on anything touched in the building: you won’t notice it so if you then eat a sandwich without washing your hands, you’re getting more than your carbs in that mouthful.

Molds and spores can also contain harmful bacteria: These molds often grow as a direct effect of water or dampness, a common trait of abandoned buildings (especially if the roof lead has been stolen). Breathed in, these spores can cause serious lung conditions and can trigger asthma.

Lone working: Lone/solo investigations can be incredibly dangerous in derelict or unused buildings, as a single slip and fall could result in head strikes and unconsciousness that may go unnoticed for long periods of time. Adequate communication with someone outside of the building should be maintained at all times. Just think… if you accidentally cut yourself or break a limb, who knows where you are to get you out before you bleed to death or die of shock/exposure?

Site security: How secure is the site? Did you lock the door? If a member of the public wanders in while you’re in control of the building and has an accident, if you didn’t secure the building it becomes your issue.

PPE: Is your team, and are your guests suited and booted with the correct PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)?  As a minimum most locations would require a hard hat, gloves, safety eyewear, potentially a face mask and safety footwear.

The above is a very short summary which would need to be added to depending on each individual case. Its not exaggerated or included to spoil your fun, but as a warning that if you don’t know what you’re doing you or your friends could end up in hospital or worse. In most derelict buildings, the risk of falling debris, rotten floors, cuts, scrapes, contaminated material etc is moderate and can be mitigated with a good risk assessment strategy. But if you go into an unknown building by torchlight without the aforementioned strategy, you might as well be putting a target on your forehead.

Charging members of the public to go into that building with you? Then I hope, as a commercial event, you’re fully versed in the law and your liability. 

Here’s a short list of things you should be aware of (and compliant with):

  • Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974;
  • Health and Safety at Work Act, 2005;
  • Working at Heights Regulations 2005;
  • Manual Handling Regulations 1992;
  • ‘Safe use of ladders and stepladders: An employers’ guide’ HSE Books 2005;
  • HSE Toolbox: PPE.

Remember, if in doubt: get out. This simple sentence could save your life.

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